Joe Laidlaw: The Big Interview

Joe Laidlaw
Joe Laidlaw
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With Pompey languishing in unfamiliar surroundings, boss Frank Burrows knew he had to act decisively before the club became accustomed to a fate deemed unworthy by those connected to it.

A fallen giant, the Blues had been expected to lift themselves from the Football League’s lowest tier at the first time of asking, having become only the second English champions to fall through the third-division trap door after Huddersfield Town.

Reality, however, was that in early 1979, instant promotion was no longer on the cards, and the club – who would duly end the season in seventh place – was facing the indignity of a second season in the fourth division.

Burrows, though, was busy plotting the summer arrival of Doncaster midfielder Joe Laidlaw.

And the Blues boss had laid the groundwork and completed his homework on a player he believed would help kickstart his side’s ascent up the Football League.

Pompey player-turned-scout John Lathan – a former team-mate of Laidlaw at Carlisle – had been sent out by Burrows to gauge his chief-target’s interest.

And in the close season, the Blues – originally quoted £40,000 from the Belle Vue club – sealed the deal after months of haggling for a cut-price £15,000.

‘Everybody knew about Pompey,’ said Laidlaw.

‘As a player, you know which clubs are really well-supported and which have got ambitions.

‘There was a lad down there called John Lathan, another midfielder, who rang me up and asked me if I was interested.

‘Obviously they (Pompey) didn’t want to waste time if I would say: “No I don’t want to go down south because I’m a northern boy.”

‘So John just asked me nicely if I would consider coming down?

‘I said I’d gladly come down – and everything went really well from there.

‘Frank Burrows had taken over and didn’t really have to sell the club because I knew its stature and had heard good things about it from other players.

‘It was the right time for me to leave Doncaster as well.

‘It was a match made in heaven.’

An experienced pro, the arrival of Laidlaw – who had previously played in English football’s top-flight – represented something of a coup for the Blues, given the club’s unenviable circumstances.

Burrows recognised this and made the 29-year-old his captain for the 1979-80 season.

Laidlaw said: ‘It’s a great honour whichever club you are at – not just Pompey – to be made captain.

‘The manager showed faith in me and he knew I could play my own game as well as gee up the boys around the pitch when I didn’t have the ball.

‘The players respected me.

‘Rarely did I ever fall out with anybody because whatever I said was for the good of the team.’

Laidlaw would have to wait for his Blues debut, though, as he missed the promotion-chasers’ season opener at Hartlepool serving an outstanding suspension.

He said: ‘The first game was away to Hartlepool and the boys went up there and did really well – winning the game 3-0.

‘So I thought obviously: “I’ll start the next game on the bench.”

‘But Frank brought me straight back into the team.’

And that’s where Laidlaw stayed.

An ever-present from the second game of the season onwards, Laidlaw played a key role as the Blues answered the Fratton faithful’s promotion prayers.

But it wouldn’t be Pompey if they didn’t do it the hard way.

By the beginning of December, the only question on Fratton fans’ lips was whether the Blues would be going up as champions, as striker Colin Garwood ran riot.

But with 17 goals under his belt, the Blues hitman was surprisingly told that he was to be replaced by David Gregory, from Bury.

Garwood was frozen out before Christmas and after turning down a move to Exeter was eventually shipped out to Aldershot in the New Year as Pompey’s promotion bandwagon veered off course.

Laidlaw admitted the shock sale of prolific marksman and friend Garwood hit the camp hard.

He said: ‘Colin was a well-respected player among the boys because he sniffed out goals.

‘I got on really well with him.

‘We didn’t live far from each other and would socialise with each other off the field, so I was really disappointed when he left.

‘Frank brought in David Gregory and again he was a good player, but he was different.

‘It took a little bit of time to get used to Dave because he was very quick so he’d be looking for balls over the top rather than at his feet.

‘Things did eventually get better but it (the sale of Garwood) nearly backfired on getting promotion.’

With Gregory taking time to settle and Garwood’s striking prowess now delighting Aldershot fans instead of the Fratton faithful, it was clear the Blues needed an alternative source of goals.

Responsibility fell to the skipper, who duly obliged in an outstanding first season, notching an impressive 17 goals from midfield to share top goalscorer honours with departed Garwood.

Laidlaw said: ‘I scored goals at most of the clubs I’d been at because I started my career as a forward at Middlesbrough.

‘Normally forwards back in the 1960s were big boys, though, and I’m only 5ft8in, so after breaking into the side at Boro’ I was brought into midfield with license to really get forward as much as I could.

‘At Pompey, Terry Brisley was very similar – he got into the box regularly and scored goals.

‘Stevey Bryant did all the hard work to cover either Terry or myself so we could go forward and that worked well.’

With results steadily picking up, the Blues endured a miserable March as a four-match winless run threatened to prolong their stay in the fourth division.

But a six-game unbeaten run took the promotion challenge to a final-day decider as Pompey travelled to Northampton needing to win and hope Bradford lost at Peterborough.

Ian Purdie and Steve Davey obliged in a nerve-jangling 2-0 win but it was Posh’s Tony Cliss who was the toast of the day as his goal beat Bradford to put Pompey up on goal-difference.

Laidlaw reflected on the day’s events: ‘The fans in the crowd had their radios on, though you didn’t know whether they were telling the truth or not because it could’ve been Northampton supporters giving the slip as well.

‘It wasn’t until we came into the dressing room that we knew that we had got promoted.

‘It was a special feeling – more for the fans because they’d had some awful times over the four-five years previous so it was more for them than anybody else.’

Laidlaw was rewarded for his combative displays with the Blues’ player-of-the-year award.

But the fans’ favourite was another shock departure when he left Fratton Park midway through the following season for Hereford.

Laidlaw explained: ‘I wasn’t looking to leave the club at all.

‘It was only when Frank Burrows pulled me into his office and said they’d had an offer from Hereford.

‘I went along, though, and had a chat with manager Frank Lord.

‘Frank sold the club to me and I thought: “Well it’s a chance to get a few bob signing on” and it appealed to me in different ways as it was another footballing challenge.’

With Pompey happy to cash in, Laidlaw followed fellow Blue Derek Showers to Hereford before joining sixth and final league club Mansfield Town.

The man who enjoyed a memorable year on the south coast then returned to Portsmouth, where he currently resides, after his playing days were over.

A spell at Fareham Town alongside future Blues David Leworthy and Kevin Bartlett supplemented a job in roofing with good friend ‘touchline Tony’ Male.

Now retired, Laidlaw is enjoying occasional Pompey punditry duty with Express FM.